The Genesis of New Age Music
Part Four - California
From the online book: Music Through the Centuries by Don Robertson (2005)
Published on DoveSong.com – Revised and expanded in 2016 and 2024
Chapter Six – The 20th Century: “Dissolution”
Out of the 1960’s arose a social and art movement that few people understand today (you had to have been there). Some called it “The Hippies” and others the “Counterculture”.
Dozens of slang expressions in common use today were born at that time. The acceptance of Eastern music and philosophies happened then, as well as the awareness of organic farming, ecology, human rights, spirituality, healthy diet, clean water, sexual liberation… our eyes were opened, and we began to deal with a new world.
Some of us who were a part of this movement carried forth our vision from the sixties as our life mission. Then of course, others just became the casualties. Meanwhile the whole counterculture movement was ridiculed, infiltrated, misrepresented, and dumbed-down for the ingestion of those who looked in from the outside via the corporate-controlled mass media.
“New age music” was one of the products of the sixties. Presented here is my own perspective of how the genre was born, what its original goals were, how it became a genre, and how that genre was changed when the major labels, radio, and other interested parties entered the picture.
I was there….
The dawn of the concept of new-age music and the first major records of music for meditation and relaxation.
Hearts of Space
A radio program in Berkeley becomes a phenomenon, bringing new music to the nation.
The advent of innovative, mind-expanding, meditative positive electronic music from Europe.
Music artists in California form an influential and important genre of new music for healing and meditation.
Now called “new-age music”, the new music genre is hijacked by corporate media and the major record labels.
Don Robertson, Electronic Musician
After discovering the great electronic music from mid-1970s Europe, as quickly as I could, I put together an electronic music studio in our Santa Rosa bedroom during 1980. I began by buying a minimoog synthesizer from my friends, the duo Emerald Web. They were a part of the burgeoning new age music scene in the Bay Area.
I also purchased a small Roland string synthesizer to create sustained chords, providing a smooth string-like chordal sound. With it and my minimoog instrument and my Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder, I immediately created two spontaneous pieces of music, one that I later released on a compilation CD called Favorites. I called it “Cry of the Infinite”.
Next, I purchased a professional 8-track tape recorder that enabled me to overdub different tracks, and an Oberheim sequencer that I could use to create repeated note-patterns. I then set to work on my first synthesizer album called Resurrection. I worked on it for six months.
I learned a lot making this album, as I had no previous experience in recording, mixing and mastering music, let alone producing cassettes. I joined the Audio Engineering Society and flew down to Los Angeles to attend conventions, where I would learn from professionals.
When I had completed the album, I was unsure of the final result and asked Michael Sterns if he would remix the album properly for me, but he told me the tape sounded fine. Resurrection became the first album on my new DBR Music cassette label.
By this time, I had met visionary artist Brian MacGovern, and we had become friends. He created an amazing cover for the album, but I received so many complaints about it, and because I wanted people to like the album, I changed the cover to a banal nature photo. Still, this album wasn’t making it in America, and it never would.
However, it was making it in the electronic-music scene in England, where the album was on the Electronic Music Top 20 Chart. I received a phone call from British composer Clifford White who told me that my Resurrection album had changed his life and he, like I had done when I had first heard Klaus Schulze for the first time, created a home studio with keyboards and synthesizers and had begun creating albums of his own. His first album, Ascension, sold over 50,000 copies.
Don Robertson – “Misty Morning Melody”
from the album Resurrection
The Genre Begins to Become Known
New age music distributor Ethan Edgecombe was very aggressive, now selling music recordings not only in metaphysical bookstores, but in places like Star Magic that sold space-related gifts. There were two of these stores, one in San Francisco and the other in New York City.
He was setting up special displays and really marketing the product. People began buying this new music. Because the stores were gradually being tagged with the “new age” moniker, the music was being called new age also.
Constance Demby moved to the San Francisco area from Boston, and we began doing concerts together in the Bay Area. She would perform her music with a number of exotic instruments, some especially made for her, like her “space bass”, the large metal structure behind her in the poster on the right. These two joint concerts took place in Santa Rosa and San Rafael, California, during 1981. I introduced Connie to Stephen Hill and Anna Turner of the Music from the Hearts of Space radio program, and Anna helped her create an album of electronic music called Novus Magnificat. It was released in 1986 on a new “Hearts of Space” record label that Steve and Anna funded. It ended up selling over 200,000 copies.
The visionary artist Aeoliah, whose painting I had used for the cover of my Celestial Ascent album, wanted to become a recording artist. He wasn’t really a musician, but he could play chords on a keyboard, and so he and I recorded an album of music in my bedroom studio. With this album, I launched Aeoliah’s career, and he became one of the best-selling recording artists in the new age genre.
I traded my work on Aeoliah’s album for his original painting called “Rainbow Ray”. It is hanging in my studio.
As sales of new age music began to take off, other distributors entered the fray. Vital Body Marketing and Narada were the second and third new age distributers to emerge.
Enter Windham Hill, Stage Right
New-age-music distributor Ethan Edgecomb had expanded his catalogue by including the music of a guitarist friend of his who had started a label called Windham Hill. His name was Will Ackerman. Will wanted nothing to do with the so-called new age music genre that Ethan was selling, as I recall. His vision was a label that encompassed folk, classical, and jazz. But Edgecombe got Windham Hill records (their first albums were acoustic guitar instrumentals) into his bookstores, placing them alongside all of our albums and cassettes, and soon Windham Hill became as “new age” as Iasos and Halpern, despite the fact that the music had nothing to do with healing and meditation.
Thus, the new age genre slowly became filled with music by people who had no idea what the actual new age musicians were doing, or what our goal was.
Next, in the cut-out bin of San Francisco’s Tower Records Store, Ethan discovered an album by an artist that was unknown in America: the Japanese electronic musician Kitaro. Ethan gave this record to Stephen Hill to play on the “Music from the Hearts of Space” radio program, and then he began distributing the music of that artist, importing cassettes and LPs from Japan. Soon, Kitaro himself came from Japan just to meet Ethan, and eventually Kitaro moved to Boulder, Colorado.
Ethan also put George Winston on the map by taking Winston’s first Windham Hill album to the popular San Rafael radio station KTIM, and the DJs there put cuts from the album into heavy rotation. It all went uphill from there. George Winston ended up creating sixteen albums of solo piano that accumulated a total sales of 15 million records, with the 1994 album called Forest earning him a Grammy award for Best New Age Album.
The Last Hurrah
The last new age social event that I attended was a big bash that someone threw for the “Hearts of Space” radio program in 1984. It took place in a big San Francisco upscale home. All of the movers and shakers from the new-age-music scene were in attendance. This was the first time that I had ever seen all of these people together in the same room, where I could experience in full, the new-age-music mass mind.
It was circus. People were showing up dressed in their new-age regalia, the shear purple-laced dresses and tie-dyed day-glo fashions bedecked with crystals. Some had sprinkled glitter all over themselves.
My French friends sythesizer musicians Bernard Xolotl and Ariel Kalma were there. We looked at each other in astonishment. This was an indescribable scene of self-obsessed trendiness that was beyond our belief, and it was as phony as the establishment cocktail parties that I had to attend in my youth, where everyone dressed up in evening dresses and suits!
As the reefers were passed around, the marijuana fumes rose overhead, and Bernard decided to blow everyone away. He got into his car and dashed out to a liquor store where he bought a pint of Kentucky bourbon. When he returned, he and I started passing the pint back and forth.
The reaction to this was classic. A buzz began to stir amongst the glitterati, and this turned into laughter and astonishment as people moved toward us with wide-eyed disbelief. Bernard and I were pretty well-known artists, and our music was featured on the “Hearts of Space” program. We were so-called “new agers” and yet, here we were committing the outrage of outrages… drinking hard liquor!
A cubby long-haired guy who had a Disney “Goofy” button pinned to his shirt – it had a string attached to it that he pulled to light up Goofy’s eyes – came up close to snap photos. In fact, several people had their cameras out. Here, before all the astonished faces, was a new-age news event extraordinaire!
Move While the Movin' is Good
The new-age cult mentality was highly disturbing to me. I didn’t like what I was seeing more and more each day: people wearing glitter and talking about how they were reincarnated from Atlantis, as if they were participating in some kind of game. They carried big crystals with which they “channeled the masters”. I would just shake my head and laugh. Why would true spiritual masters waste their time with these people?
Newsletters printed with purple ink sprang up from new-age enclaves, and these were peppered with so-called channeled messages written by people with Hindu names like Ramadama and Shivanangi, who were probably just spoiled Jewish kids who had run away from wealthy neighborhoods. “Messages from Saint Germain”, said the headlines on these pages. Then, when you read this stuff, it was drivel. In fact, it was recycled drivel, all the same “You are the light workers. Carry on the great work. I am with you…” kind-of stuff. You would think that if higher beings were giving people information, it would be something useful.
The clincher was when some guy came to town who claimed to be God. He was going to destroy the world, he told the new agers, but before he did, he was holding one-on-one sessions with people for only $1,000 a sitting to bring them into total enlightenment, instantly transforming them into powerful master teachers! I couldn’t imagine how anyone would swallow this stuff until I got a call from one of the distributors to whom we were selling my music. He informed me that he had given this guy who claimed to be God all of his money and had moved into the guy’s home, and now my distributor was to be called “Lord Ezekiel”!
It was time to pack my bags! I had been living in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, and my oldest daughter was getting ready to start high school there. I didn’t like the influence that I saw around her and the direction that Santa Rosa’s teenagers were heading into. Adding in the insanity of the new-age scene… it was all too crazy, and I was tired of it. I needed to save my children and get the heck out of Dodge.
And so, back to my home state of Colorado we moved. Northern California had given us a lot, but I was through. When I told Stephen Hill that I was moving to Colorado, all he could say was: “You asshole!”
I guess he was joking.